Poem of the week: It Was As If a Ladder by Jane Hirshfield

Carol Rumens
·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Derek Croucher/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Derek Croucher/Alamy

It Was As If a Ladder

It was as if
a ladder,

and each rung,
real to itself,
round or slat,
narrow or wide,
rope or metal –

and as you ascended,
real to yourself,
the rungs directly above
you solid,
directly beneath you, solid.

Scent of peeled orange
mixed with gasoline,
sound of hammers.

Farther below,
the rungs one by one vanished.

Farther above,
the rungs one by one

And the side-rails’ lines
vanished, as into
a drawing by Brunelleschi.

Scent of peeled orange
and gasoline,
sound of hammers.

Grip now, night-dog, your barking:

this ladder in air,
invented by others, received by others.

The American poet, translator and essayist Jane Hirshfield engages with ecological crisis and its ramifications in this oblique and mysterious narrative. It Was As If a Ladder is from her most recent collection, Ledger, published in the UK this year by Bloodaxe Books.

Hirshfield’s writing is always sensuous and focused: at the same time, her Zen-influenced deep absorption in things seen and sensed is often unsettled by a further, philosophical line of inquiry. This leads to new insights, but not necessarily an easy resolution.

It Was As If a Ladder neither asks nor answers its hard unspoken questions. Like the ladder itself, the story and the very grammar it rests on are flimsily suspended. Gradually simple objects and clear sense impressions are translated into the surreality of nightmare.

The title promises a security the grammar doesn’t deliver. Surely there will be some further explanatory clauses concerning the image which the ladder must have suggested as comparison – “as if a ladder were leaning against the wall …” etc. But no. Carefully split into two lines the statement is self-contained: “It was as if / a ladder, // and each rung, real to itself …” So the ladder only appears to be a solid piece of hardware. The image starts to float and we’re still clearly in the dangerous world of “as if” despite some strong, plain description, and a steady rhythm that might just tempt us into believing in the ladder and the ascent.

An evocative series of sense impressions interrupts the progress: “Scent of peeled orange / mixed with gasoline, / sound of hammers.” Oranges and petrol smell reassuring and, intermingled, might enticingly suggest holidays and travel, but perhaps here they have connotations of environmental damage. That haiku-like tercet is succeeded by two small, ominous stanzas. They tell us that the rungs of the ladder, above and below the climber, have vanished. Precisely, and without melodrama, the narrator adds that the side-rails too have vanished “as into / a drawing by Brunelleschi”.

The Renaissance architect Filippo Brunelleschi observed that parallel lines, when viewed from a fixed, single point of view, would appear to converge at a single point in the distance. The poem isn’t saying this is what happens to the ladder’s side-rails, though, but that they turn “as into” mere lines in an architectural sketch. There might have been a building, as well as a ladder, but there is nothing. This seems to resound with accusation against humanity. There’s no building, no civilisation, no ascent.

The “haiku” stanza recurs, to haunt us with our non-achievement. This time, the hammers seem to ring out more sharply. There is no building, but there is the sound of it. Or perhaps the sound is of demolition?

“Grip now, night-dog, your barking.” The sudden imperative carries a mysterious force. Who is the night-dog? Perhaps it represents the last, animal reality humans still possess. Or perhaps this “dog” no longer has anything to do with the human world. How can the sound you are making be gripped? By repetition and volume, perhaps. However, there’s no reassurance, and the night-dog seems to remain stranded on the vanished ladder, which, all along, was “invented by others” and which is “received by others”. So the nightmarish helplessness of the climber, who may or may not also be the night-dog, is exposed. The ladder becomes a monolithic power structure, taking no account of those wavering on its vanished rungs.

It Was As If a Ladder is one of the bleaker poems in Ledger, but it’s a tremendous symbolic narrative, bringing surrealist techniques to image and grammar in a thoroughly contemporary way. The Tower of Babel is not more relevant to our times than Hirshfield’s terrifying and yet tenuously beautiful “ladder in air”.